Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

AIDS and Poverty Stalk Zimbabwe Schools

Once they achieved spectacular goals – but are now a shadow of their former selves.
In Zimbabwe the good news is that there is a school in almost every village.

The bad news is that it does not really matter. Teachers are dying of AIDS; children orphaned by the disease cannot afford the school fees; and those who can often fall asleep from hunger during class.

Unfortunately the good news is as ephemeral as the bad is enduring.

Independence in 1980 brought with it a boon for Africans. The new black-dominated government led by the then premier Robert Mugabe, later to become state president, announced a policy of education for all at primary level. It expanded the health service by building clinics in remote areas. Both services were free and won the government huge support following years of destruction during the 1970s liberation war.

One of Mugabe's most wildly cheered political slogans-cum-promises was "Health for all by the Year 2000".

In the euphoria of international goodwill immediately after the end of the war and the lifting of sanctions that had been imposed against the white minority-dominated Rhodesian Front government led by Ian Smith, donors poured in development money - for social services, schools and hospitals and so that boreholes could be sunk to provide clean water to rural communities. Government policy was that no pupil or patient should travel more than five kilometres to the nearest school or health centre.

Adult literacy education programmes proliferated in countryside and town.

These were not idle promises. Soon Zimbabwe was achieving spectacular goals. It attained literacy rates of more than 80 per cent by 1990. There was nationwide immunisation of children against measles and malaria, which alone led to a cut in the childbirth mortality rate. Agricultural productivity and exports expanded exponentially, with Zimbabwe winning the accolade of the "breadbasket of southern Africa". Life expectancy, 56 at independence rose to 65 years by 1995.

But the fairytale was too sweet to last.

Since 1997 the country's economy has been in freefall.

That is inasmuch as Zimbabweans could then begin to see the collapse. With hindsight, the disaster had begun a lot earlier in 1985 when news of a disease called AIDS first crossed our borders.

Typically, the news was met with denial, then scepticism and finally with panic when it was already too late. By 1990 the official weekly death toll from AIDS was 3,000, although non-governmental organisations claim this was a conservative estimate. The United Nations Children's Programme UNICEF estimates there are more than 1.3 million AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe - children who have lost parents to AIDS or who themselves are HIV-positive.

The education system was in decline by the early 1990s. Schools had no books while hospitals lacked drugs and equipment. Doctors and nurses were emigrating in large numbers.

Clean water in rural areas is now a luxury as most of the borehole pumps have broken down.

By last year Zimbabweans had, according to the World Health Organisation, the lowest life expectancy on earth - just 34 years, a drop of more than 30 years in just a decade.

Kadzangarare school in Hurungwe outside Karoi, 225 km northwest of Harare, is emblematic of the nationwide institutional collapse that has followed Mugabe's "land reform" launched in 1999-2000, during which white commercial farmers, and a handful of black ones, were driven from their properties with extreme violence.

Rati Moyo, 22, graduated with a teacher's certificate from Hillside Teachers College in Bulawayo last year. She and a female colleague were deployed to Kadzangarare. The school buildings consist of two former tobacco-curing barns. There are no chairs or benches to sit on – and no windows. The teacher jots notes on a blackboard from the class’s only textbook. At the best-resourced schools five pupils share a textbook.

”The children can't concentrate because they are always hungry, resulting in malnutrition and school dropouts," said Rati. This is the part of the country with the most fertile agricultural soils and which until the late 1990s produced bumper crops of wheat and maize. Today, following the "land reforms", the farms produce nothing. They are being overcome by bush and weeds.

"There is no piped water, there is no electricity and I have to share the makeshift kitchen-cum-bedroom with Mary [another teacher] from Masvingo," protested Rati. Without electricity, the school cannot benefit from Mugabe's largesse of ten computers per school that he donated during the most recent election campaigns.

Teachers use a communal pit latrine and firewood for cooking, and they have to travel 48 km to the town of Karoi to buy groceries. Rati's gross pay of 33,000 Zimbabwe dollars (136 US dollars at the official exchange rate; 27 at the more realistic and most commonly used black market rate) is a slave wage in a country where inflation has topped 1200 per cent and the government itself defines the poverty line as an income below 110,000 Zimbabwe dollars a month.

"It all makes decent clothing a luxury," said Rati. "I can't contemplate visiting my mother in Mberengwa district [in the far south of Zimbabwe]. The cheapest bus ride would cost me 8,500 Zimbabwe dollars just one way."

At least Rati does not have to pay rent or budget money for daily commuting, expenses that have reduced her urban counterparts to wretched poverty.

Beset by poor conditions and low morale, AIDS is also ravaging the teaching profession, with an estimated annual death toll among teachers of 600. It is estimated that more than 25 per cent of members of the teaching profession are HIV-positive. The main teaching union, the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, said in a statement, "The majority of schools in Zimbabwe have lost at least one teacher to the disease, and at least two to three teachers [per school] are on AIDS-related sick leave."

Speaking at a recent fundraising function at Daramombe school in Chivhu, 140 km south of Harare, Anti-Corruption Minister Paul Mangwana revealed that 278 of the school's 600 pupils at the school had been orphaned by AIDS and that the government was paying their fees. He stood in front of ramshackle structures as he appealed for the local community and businessmen to make donations to build more classrooms. "Britain and the United States have imposed sanctions on us so people should not expect foreign donations," he said.

In fact, there are no such sanctions on Zimbabwe: the only sanctions imposed by the international community are individual ones targeted at Mugabe and members of his administration, judiciary and armed services.

This honesty about AIDS in schools contrast with government double-speak on the disastrous food situation. Mugabe has asserted that Zimbabwe does not need international food aid. He has protested that donors are trying to "choke us ... [by] … foisting food on us instead of sending it where it is needed."

To drive home his point, international food agencies were barred from distributing food in the country except to vulnerable groups such as orphans and the elderly.

However, the truth is now out. Mugabe and Agriculture Minister Joseph Made had been insisting for months that this year farmers had harvested 1.8 million tonnes of maize, the staple food of 90 per cent of the people, enough to meet national consumption levels until April 2007.

Independent assessors said there was no evidence of an abundant harvest. A maximum of 700,000 tonnes of maize would be produced, necessitating either huge commercial imports or a rescue effort by the World Food Programme and other international donors.

Now Made has begun a series of speeches admitting that his food production forecasts were wildly inaccurate and that no more than 700,000 tonnes of maize have been harvested, despite good rains. He blamed shortages of fertiliser, seed and fuel.

The World Food Programme has launched a new appeal for funds to feed at least 1.4 million Zimbabweans who are likely to starve without international help in the coming months.

South African farmers have so far refused to send maize to Zimbabwe, insisting on payment up front in view of difficulties in obtaining payments from the Mugabe government.

Zambia, which for decades was dependent on international aid to feed its people, has agreed to sell an initial 85,000 tonnes of maize to Zimbabwe's Grain Marketing Board.

Ironically, the maize from Zambia is produced by white commercial farmers chased out of Zimbabwe at the height of the violent land reform which has caused the current hunger stalking the nation.

Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.